I am not a big fan of psychological thrillers, but I have to admit that I was a wee bit smitten with this one. Jennifer McMahon’s The One I Left Behind has so many twists and turns that it kept me motivated to read, read, read until, at last, I could exhale and close the cover.
I would easily agree if you told me that this fictional novel was based on a true-life crime, so real and life-like were McMahon’s characters. And I can just as easily see it made into a movie, if that’s the author’s decision. There is plenty of imagery, suspense, creepiness and dark matter to fill a few hours on screen. But back to the book, and the impressions I had while reading it.
(Note: Should you choose to read the One I Left Behind, I will be respectful and not reveal much of the plot in this review, since I don’t want to spoil it for you. I will just scrape the surface.)
First, this is a backwards forwards story, where you toggle between 1985’s 13-year old heroine, Reggie, and the present day adult Regina. As a teen, Reggie battles youngster angst: Love, depression, less-than-perfect parenting, isolation, trying to fit in, abandonment, and oh, a little thing called a serial killer in her hometown. As an adult, Regina blossoms into a stoic, single architect, desperately trying to make a life for herself and believe that she can scrape her past off her boots.
Not so, we discover quickly, as her lost mother reappears in her life as a dying, crazed shadow of her former self, and Regina of course goes back home to unravel not only where her mother was all these years, but who that serial killer really was…and if the killer is about to strike again.
Now, as I have said before in other reviews, I don’t like books that toggle the reader back and forth. I find it distracting. After all, I am not reading your book cover to cover in the same sitting, so please Ms. or Mr. Author, why? But here, kudos to McMahon who helpfully dates the top of each chapter so you know at a glance if you’re in 1985 or present day. It’s a small gesture that helps keep the reader’s storyline intact, because believe me, with all the red herrings, characters, locations, and hairpin twists McMahon tosses in, you’ll appreciate all the help you can get.
The story slowly unravels as Reggie/Regina darkly works through not only personal challenges and emotional growth, but all sorts of relationships, some healthy and some, well, not so much. All the other players—her mom, her aunt, a doting uncle-type/father figure/man-in-love-with-her-mother, a boy whom she loves but doesn’t get, a girl who loves her but doesn’t get her, neighbors and townies—lend color and form to the storyline. There are moments of darkness in this story that are disturbing, very human and may be uncomfortable and too real for some readers.
One topic, teen cutting, is woven throughout both eras, which I thought very brave on McMahon’s part, but I was disappointed that there was no resolution, no healing, and no hope for the person who cuts. McMahon had the opportunity to shed some light or deliverance or healing from that devastating emotional and physical self-mutilation… yet didn’t. I don’t know if she has personal experience with it, or knows someone who does, but leaving it dangling made me feel as though it was an endorsement of those acts, and I’m not sure that’s a responsible position to take.
Overall, I liked the story, the characters were fresh and interesting, the pace was good. She got me in the end, because I really thought I knew who the killer was, but was wrong. My only demerits are for the above-mentioned cutting issue that was unresolved, and for a liberal dose of obscenities which I never, ever endorse and feel don’t add anything to a well-turned story. Characters were fascinating and real, although the ending, for me, was too abrupt and could have taken the characters a little farther into their future lives.
Read this one slowly and carefully, for it has lots of shadowy treasures tucked into the corners here and there. Take your time, lock your doors, and enjoy the creepy journey from cover to cover.
Review by Alicia Accardi
Closed the Cover